Western Sahara – Back to the Future? – Robert M. Holley

Robert M. Holley
April 18, 2016

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

At this writing, the much anticipated report from Ban Ki Moon to the Security Council on the future of the Western Sahara peacekeeping mandate for MINURSO is still under discussion in New York. Not since former US Secretary of State and UN Personal Envoy James Baker tried way back in 2002 to get the Security Council to endorse his first proposed autonomy solution for the region by providing the Council a choice between his approach and three other clearly non-viable options has a report been anticipated with so much consternation and suspense. By the way, the Council turned Baker down on all four of his options and instead opted for the road we still plod along today calling for a “mutually acceptable political solution.”

What will the Secretary General say about current circumstances and recommend to the Council? That’s the 64-thousand-dollar question. And what will the Council decide to do about it – a matter of equal mystery at this point.

Before his trip to Algeria and the Polisario gulags in early March, Ban made a big deal of announcing his intention to have a look at the situation for himself with an eye to seeing what he could do to move negations forward towards a lasting political solution.  Ban must be an acolyte of chaos theory if his methods, words and deeds during the trip speak of his approach to strategic problem solving. No denying that he threw an industrial sized lug wrench squarely into the heart of the machinery (clunky as its been these last years) when he seemingly decided to do all within his reach to both wholly alienate one of the major parties to the dispute and create new cleavages among important members of the Security Council.

Among the many egregious errors of the trip (and it’s a stiff competition to pick the worst of them) was tagging Morocco as an “occupying power” in the territory. But perhaps most egregious was Ban’s “back to the future” call to renew MINURSO’s effort to revive the long since dead and buried referendum as an option for future progress.  A shout out — Hey Ban – been there, done that! It was a bad idea to begin with. It failed. Want to go back to another decade of arguing about who gets to vote? Here is a bit of advice from someone who was there at the time and personally had the arguments regularly at the highest levels with both Parties to the dispute.  It will be even harder to settle that fundamental question today than it was the first time around.  Not only are there still over 140,000 pending registration appeals still hanging out there with no agreed way to adjudicate them, but, to make matters much more complicated, there are also several hundred thousand other potential resident voters and legitimate democratic stakeholders who have been living in the territory for over four decades now and will never agree to be disenfranchised in any conceivable referendum on the territory’s future. Trying to do so is the path to madness and likely another war. What were you thinking?

We really do not need another wrench in this machine. What we need is some clear reasoning and some serious political will from both the Security Council and its major players, starting first and foremost with the ever-reluctant and much-too-satisfied-with-the-status-quo group in Washington, D.C.

Let’s face reality here. Peter Van Walsum, the previous Personal Envoy, was the last one to make this argument and, at the time, you, Ban, seemed to agree with him that what we need here is some realism. Van Walsum could not have been more clear or more on target when he said that it was unrealistic to think that there is ever going to be another independent mini state in the Maghreb that would spark even more conflict and violence in an already catastrophically dangerous region from the moment of its inception. The only way out of this mess, if you accept that the status quo is not sustainable, is some kind of compromise political solution that splits the difference between what the parties might optimally prefer and what they can legitimately expect to get with the endorsement of the international community. That is on the table already. The formula is well known – Moroccan sovereignty and some kind of robust autonomy for the people of the region — details to be worked out over the bargaining table. The Security Council has nodded its approval. Perm Five powerhouses have done the same – repeatedly. It is now time to show the political will to make that happen and demonstrate to those who are unwilling to bargain an honorable outcome that the Security Council will move on without them if they cannot accept this kind of legitimate political compromise.

Enough with the chaos theory approach. It’s already broke enough. Enough with any more dead-end, back-to-the-future schemes. The voter list issue is now well beyond reach. Enough with the status quo.  It is time for the Council and its most important members to make clear that there is only one solution – some kind of sovereignty/autonomy trade-off. James Baker’s original “Framework Agreement” is a good place to start. So is the initiative Morocco has had on the table since 2007. The Council missed the boat back in 2002. Let’s not miss it again. Let’s do some good here, not more harm. For what should be low hanging fruit, this has been tough enough already.


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